Until now the only time I had seen this film was at university, where our Film Studies lecturer insisted that we included it during the opening semester programme of the newly-resurrected film club. Despite our initial protests (I don’t think any of us had heard of it) we sat through it and begrudgingly admitted that it was actually pretty good. More than 15 years later, and with a great love for Powell and Pressburger having been nurtured in the interim, I am finally positioned to fully appreciate this masterpiece of British Cinema.
Roger Livesey, who lucked into the role after the Military Board refused to release Laurence Olivier from active duty, is phenomenal as Clive Wynn-Candy, the career officer whose life is charted in a 40-year flashback from the end of the Boer War in 1902 to the present day, at the height of WWII. As the times change and global warfare evolves infinitely faster than our hero, we see him struggle to realign himself with each new conflict, but always maintain a positive outlook and optimistic demeanour.
The wonderful Deborah Kerr plays three separate roles in the film, as Candy’s great love, as well as two other women he meets in different decades who each remind him of the one that got away. Anton Walbrook – who would go on to star in The Red Shoes – forms the third part of this triangle, as German officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, whom Candy first meets at the business end of his sabre, only for the two great soldiers to form a lasting friendship that would rise above any conflict between their opposing home nations.
Hugely controversial at the time, not least for having the gall to paint Germans in a sympathetic light during wartime, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp has since been restored to its full length and former glory, and today stands proud alongside any of The Archers’ other great works. In many ways Blimp is their most personal film, with Candy and Schuldorff often cited as onscreen incarnations of Powell and Pressburger respectively – the eternal optimist and the frustrated “enemy alien”. It is also the film that united the writer-directors with the incredible talents of Jack Cardiff. Here he would serve only as a camera operator, but would go on to lens many of their subsequent films, win an Oscar for his work on Black Narcissus, and become an authority in the field of Technicolor photography.
This year marks Blimp‘s 70th Anniversary, and it proves just as prescient a statement about war, friendship, loyalty and the importance of a good moustache today as it did when first released. A prime example of how The Archers pushed the boundaries of traditional cinematic storytelling, combined with a rapier sharp wit and ravishing visual style, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a true classic that fully deserves to be re-discovered as we saw happen with The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus a few years ago. The film is a triumph, a fact many people are about to learn for themselves.